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THEATER REVIEW

`Pig Farm' has muck, will wallow

Greg Kotis' modern capitalism satire is more outrageous than subtle, but fine acting at the Old Globe pulls it off.

October 09, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Playwright Greg Kotis has a way with titles. "Urinetown," the Broadway musical sleeper that earned him a pair of Tonys, must have caused his producers plenty of anxious nights. Would audiences turn out for what sounds like a toilet extravaganza? The answer, surprisingly, was yes.

"Pig Farm," his latest spoof, now at Old Globe's Cassius Carter Center Stage in San Diego, sets up a different challenge: How many theatergoers are dying to spend an evening with a bunch of over-the-top porkers?

Actually, the hogs never appear on stage. (Actors' Equity is so picky these days!) But you can hear them grunting up a storm in the background, and a crucial plot point involves something known as a "pig run" (think jail break for death row swine). There's also a lot of talk about "fecal sludge," and bacon slabs and sausage links serve as icepacks after the humans have one of their clockwork-like explosions of cartoon violence.

Slaughtered by a number of critics when it opened last summer at New York's Roundabout Theatre, "Pig Farm" aspires to be a freewheeling satire of contemporary capitalism, mixing campy melodrama with Sam Shepard-style domestic lunacy, performed in a kind of stunned-ox deadpan.

Matt August's deftly acted production, billed as the "co-world premiere," wrings as much hilarity out of the script as possible. But as political comedies go, this one is a rather blunt instrument.

Kotis spins a knockabout farce around the plight of the American farmer who's caught between the rock of economic survival and the hard place of governmental bureaucracy. Tom (Ted Koch) can't make a living if he doesn't have enough pigs, but Uncle Sam, fed up with the waste that's been washing up on the banks of the Potomac, will allow him no more than 15,500.

His wife, Tina (a delightfully coarse Colleen Quinlan), is sick of hearing him complain about the situation. She wants a baby -- now! -- and doesn't appreciate the way he's been drunkenly sneaking out at night to unload truckloads of sludge into the river rather than spending time with her.

Not everyone is so distracted by work. Tim (Ian White), the hired hand who has been slaving away for Tom under the threat of being sent back to juvenile detention, wants Tina to make him a man. He's always looking for an excuse to hang out with her in the kitchen (conjured with greasy exactitude by set designer Takeshi Kata) when he should be in the pens counting livestock.

Inhibitions don't last long in this household. It only takes a few shots of bourbon before Tina and Tim are reenacting the kitchen-table scene from "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and her white nightgown is covered in muck from his dirty hands.

Kotis' view of corruption is all-encompassing and, well, a tad simplistic. Adultery, fraud, eco-criminality -- everything traces back to the cruel economics of modern life.

An implicit message is that we wouldn't be so morally unhinged if the government would kindly stay out of our already difficult enough affairs.

The least sympathetic character in the play is Teddy (Ken Land), an agent for the Environmental Protection Agency. He cares more about statistics than he does about hardworking people. All the same, he's not beyond trying to blackmail his way into Tina's bed.

Kotis obviously doesn't intend to come off as pro-pollution or corporate greed. He merely wants to caricature the conflicting forces bearing down on the little guy. But his shallow populism, gung-ho to skewer a straw-man bureaucracy, doesn't seem as concerned that Mother Nature is on her last legs.

"Pig Farm" isn't meant to be too closely scrutinized. It's broad, playful and eager to tickle more than provoke. How funny you'll find it will depend on your taste for tastelessness. I laughed quite a bit. Kotis has a knack for sending up genres (westerns, mortgaged-farm weepies, even gory thrillers, such as "Fatal Attraction") while carefully maintaining a distinctive theatrical voice.

The actors are in complete harmony with the play's brand of parody. Better still, they find ways of humanizing their characters even when undertaking the most outrageous shenanigans.

Tom may be an indifferent husband and overbearing boss, but Koch never lets you forget what he's struggling against. Quinlan, to her credit, keeps you ever mindful of Tina's simmering, sex-deprived rage.

White, a comic bright spot, lends Tim a doltish charisma, while Land finds just the right sinister notes to set in motion an unexpectedly bloody plot.

"Pig Farm" isn't the most profound lampoon of America's unwinnable rat race, but as a roll in the theatrical mud it could hardly be more amusingly pulled off.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

*

"Pig Farm"

Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, also 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 29

Price: $19 to $58

Contact: (619) 234-5623

Running time: 2 hours

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